According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 60% of the world’s population is not sufficiently active. The case against physical inactivity keeps growing, as more and more findings suggest that lack of exercise not only increases your risk for diseases such as heart disease and cancer, but also significantly raises your risk for premature death. A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Cambridge and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggests that physical inactivity accounts for more than double the deaths as obesity, and that even a slight increase in physical activity could impart significant health benefits.
The Link Between Premature Death and Inactivity
Researchers analyzed data collected in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) Study. Over an average of 12 years, investigators measured the height, weight, and waist circumference of 334,161 European men and women, and determined physical activity levels using self-assessment. Here’s what they found:
- Of the 9.2 million deaths in Europe each year, 337,000 are instigated by obesity—characterized as a Body Mass Index (BMI) greater than 30.
- 676,000 deaths are instigated by physical inactivity—double the number of deaths attributed to obesity!
- Individuals who were physically active had a lower risk of premature death.
The largest reduction in risk of premature death occurred in the comparison between inactive and moderately active individuals. Researchers determined that burning an additional 90-110 calories a day from increased activity—the amount of calories burned during a 20-minute brisk walk—was enough to take a person out of the inactive group and into the moderately active group, which reduces risk of premature death by 16-30%! Individuals of normal weight exhibited the most benefit, but those with a higher BMI also showed risk reduction within the moderately active group.
Lead author Professor Ulf Ekelund from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge explains: “This is a simple message: just a small amount of physical activity each day could have substantial health benefits for people who are physically inactive. Although we found that just 20 minutes would make a difference, we should really be looking to do more than this—physical activity has many proven health benefits and should be an important part of our daily life.”
How Does Physical Activity Protect Your Health?
Exercise has a direct effect on many biological processes. It helps manage weight, improve your body’s use of insulin, regulate blood pressure, normalize blood lipid and blood glucose levels, control blood clotting factors, protect the health of blood vessels, and reduce inflammation, all of which help protect against cardiovascular disease. In fact, the World Heart Federation reports that a middle-aged woman who gets less than an hour a week of exercise is two times more likely to die from a cardiovascular event, like heart attack or stroke, than a middle-aged woman who exercises an hour or more a week!
Exercise also lowers your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and, according to the National Cancer Institute, several studies have shown an association between physical activity and a lower risk for endometrial, prostate, and lung cancers. So, if you’re a physically active individual, keep at it! And, if inactivity is more your speed, then dial it up slowly with a simple 20-minute brisk walk! Any amount of activity helps.